Experiments in radically downsized living

I find these kinds of stories fascinating. People choosing to ‘live poor’ (though of course with the capacity to leave when they want to, and also while equipped with the education, networks and self-esteem that a life of opportunity has bestowed upon them) – in order to liberate themselves from debt, be less wasteful and more environmentally ethical, to challenge materialism and test their fortitude.

From Ken Ilgunas in Salon about his efforts to gain a private university education without going into debt:

Living in a van was my grand social experiment. I wanted to see if I could — in an age of rampant consumerism and fiscal irresponsibility — afford the unaffordable: an education.

I pledged that I wouldn’t take out loans. Nor would I accept money from anybody, especially my mother, who, appalled by my experiment, offered to rent me an apartment each time I called home. My heat would be a sleeping bag; my air conditioning, an open window. I’d shower at the gym, eat the bare minimum and find a job to pay tuition. And — for fear of being caught — I wouldn’t tell anybody.

Living on the cheap wasn’t merely a way to save money and stave off debt; I wanted to live adventurously. I wanted to test my limits. I wanted to find the line between my wants and my needs.

And lest you think it is a boys’ own adventure, this from Katherine Hibbert in The Guardian about her year of living without an income:

I had set out to live for free for 12 months, but when my time was up I had no desire to stop. The flat I lived in was comfortable, and my flatmates and I had been in it for months with no threat of eviction. Finding food was no hassle. I slept as much as I liked, read as much as I liked and went out, walking in the park or visiting galleries. My parents had stopped worrying about me.

These simple living arrangements are genuinely adventurous undertakings, and read as such. They are thought-provoking and inspiring, and maybe also… a little fashionable. Living green is the new black. But for those of us who have lived in actual honest to goodness poverty they can also be somewhat bemusing. Being raised on a single parent benefit didn’t so much give me the piety of poverty as an early introduction to the exhausting fear that comes with financial insecurity. If you want to really know what it is like to ‘drop in on’ poverty then these simple living articles aren’t really your guide – much more compelling doses of empathy can be found in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Jack London’s classic People of the Abyss. In a way, the simple living articles are less intended to teach you about poverty than to teach you about being affluent and how you could live better and more soundly with your affluence.

I often find myself wondering what the same living experiments would be like with children along for the ride. So I was pleased to be shown an article with exactly that angle, from Susie Arnett at Kindred about her family’s choice to move into a trailer in order to survive on the income of one artist :

But at 320 square feet, the Mallard is small.  When Kim brushes his teeth, the entire trailer shakes.

After the kids finally go to sleep in their new bunk beds, we realize how really small it is.  There’s a cupboard right over the bed that we need to duck under to lay down. The built-in closet sits against the foot of the bed, which means Kim cannot straighten his 6 foot 2 inch frame. A thin, cotton curtain separates us from our children who are sleeping 25 feet away.  If Ely woke up and stuck his head out from behind the curtain, he could see our feet and calves.  Any hopes of loud, raucous sex are dashed.  Besides, wouldn’t the neighbors see the trailer moving up and down?  We move slowly and quietly, the way you do when you’re visiting your parent’s house during college with your boyfriend.

Going from 1500 square feet to 320 square feet means we have to get rid of things.  We begin by paring down our enormous collection of plastic toys. Ely and Everly’s primary “toys” now are the things they find outside – like sticks, rocks and dirt.  (Fortunately, we live in a place where the things you find outdoors are relatively harmless).  Ely has grown very attached to a certain stick.  He carries it around constantly.  Sometimes, it’s a sword he uses to chase the rabbits at dusk.  Other days, it’s a fishing pole for catching sharks.

Because of our limited space, we spend the entire day outside.  The yard is now our living room and dining room.

(Cross-posted at blue milk).

Categories: environment, ethics & philosophy, parenting, social justice, work and family

Tags: , ,

7 replies

  1. ‘In a way, the simple living articles are less intended to teach you about poverty than to teach you about being affluent and how you could live better and more soundly with your affluence.’
    Exactly. But also, such accounts can be presented as ‘proof’ that being poor is not so bad, and people need to quit asking for money to buy big screen T.V.s and enjoy their lentils while they pull themselves up by their boot straps.
    It would be interesting to think through the gendered dimensions to these ‘adventures’. Given that women continue to do the majority of domestic and care work, I can see a significant burden placed on mothers to meet the (nutritional, social, educational, emotional) needs of themselves, their children and their partner, even in those cases when they were active participants in that choice.
    I also think of my friend who lived in a caravan during the final year of secondary school. Her father was absent, her mother moved to a different town, neither she nor her extended family had any money, and her conditions sound much like those of Ilgunas. She was poor, scared and not safe in that van and very much felt her opportunities and risks were defined by her gender and her class.

  2. Cynically, I wonder how Hibbert would have enjoyed living without an income if she’d been dependent on a medication. (Perhaps the NHS would have made this easier than Medicare?) My family lived in a caravan for a few weeks after my parents split up, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. Three cheers for Salvation Army food hampers!

  3. The safety net seems to be fairly capacious for many of these adventurers just as it was for Thoreau whose mother and sister did his washing and mending and delivered food baskets on Saturdays. One of the early episodes of Grand Designs followed a cooperative of people building houses to rent, not own, and if I remember rightly the instigator of the scheme wanted to move from his trailer in order to give his small daughter greater stability and opportunity as she grew. I think the knowledge that one has the capacity to upscale again if necessary probably tips the scale from misery to adventure.

    Still I love these kinds of stories as well and although there may be a little bit of romanticizing going on I think that the underlying themes of modest, thoughtful consumption and the deep satisfaction in producing and sharing goods and skills outside of the money economy are really important. I think it says something when a society begins to make laws to protect the current obscene degree of wastefulness , to prevent people from using that waste, rather than working out ways to divert excess to areas of need.

  4. “But also, such accounts can be presented as ‘proof’ that being poor is not so bad, and people need to quit asking for money to buy big screen T.V.s and enjoy their lentils while they pull themselves up by their boot straps.”
    But they’re not, generally. I’ve read a lot of them, because I’m fascinated not just with living in small spaces, but also with reducing consumption. They’re definitely presented as “you shouldn’t *want* a big screen TV” but they’re not presented as “people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps”.
    Sharyn Astyk is a good example of the reducing consumption side of things – http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/ – although not with living in a tiny space, but she has kids.

  5. Also there was just this op-ed in the NYTimes about a family who sold their house and bought a smaller one at half the price to give the rest to charity: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/opinion/24kristof.html?scp=1&sq=smaller%20house%20for%20charity&st=cse
    “Hannah was too young to be reasonable. She pestered her parents about inequity, insisting that she wanted to do something.
    “What do you want to do?” her mom responded. “Sell our house?”
    Warning! Never suggest a grand gesture to an idealistic teenager. Hannah seized upon the idea of selling the luxurious family home and donating half the proceeds to charity, while using the other half to buy a more modest replacement home.
    Eventually, that’s what the family did. “

  6. What struck me in the Hibbert article is that mention is made of electricity (electric lighting) and running water. Whose paying for those? Probably the squat owner – or it’s being stolen from the grid.
    She says she’s not stealing but those two things are examples of using communal goods without paying your fair share. That’s not the same thing as taking food from a dumpster. (Also, she’s lucky that squatting laws in the UK are what they are – things are quite different in North America, for example.)

%d bloggers like this: